Markevich’s Linguistic Heroes.

I was looking through the entry on Boleslav Markevich in Russian Novelists in the Age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (Vol. 238 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography series — see this post) when I hit on this description of “probably the best known of all his works, Marina iz Alogo Roga (Marina from Alyi Rog)”: “the positive heroes of the novel discuss almost exclusively linguistic themes, presenting Sanskrit and ancient Hebrew derivations, while those characters who are not particularly positive speak about Darwinism and lucidly explain the way financial intrigues work.” I found an online text (in the old orthography!), and a search on “санскрит” quickly turned up this passage:

ляги будутъ у насъ на скрыпкѣ играть.
Ляга — лягушка? такъ и встрепенулся Пужбольскій.
— Ну да, продолжала она хохотать,– здѣсь другаго слова нѣтъ.
— Самый корень, прямо отъ санскрита, молвилъ онъ, преисполненный филологическаго удовольствія,– лягатъ, leg — нога по-англійски…

“…lyagi will be playing the violin at our place.
“A lyaga — is that a frog [lyagushka]?” Puzhbolsky gave a start.
“Why, yes,” she continued laughing, “no other word will do here.”
“The very root is straight from Sanskrit,” he said, filled with philological pleasure, “lyagat, English leg…”

Russian lyagushka ‘frog’ is in fact from lyaga (now always in the diminutive lyazhka) ‘thigh,’ which is in fact related to (though not “from”) Sanskrit langhati ‘leaps’ (and Old Irish lingid ‘leaps’), but English leg (borrowed from Old Norse leggr) is probably unrelated. At any rate, I’ve added the novel to my tottering stack of books to be read in the dim future.


  1. Trond Engen says:

    Could this be an alternative etymology for the ‘long’ word?

  2. Markevich’s characters are really strong on caustic, twistedly worded opinions, oh my. I guess they must have inherited some wordly bitterness from the author? On the other classic-languages front, the protagonist dismissively calls Ovid’s Latin “a linguistic fossil”. As of Hebrew – I couldn’t find it anywhere, even though a creepy Jewish industrialist is all over the book (but he speaks good, if tellingly accented, Russian). And the frog makes just one more appearance in the book. As you might have guessed from the fact that Markevich is best remembered for attacking Turgenev’s alleged “pandering to the liberal youth” (and getting seriously whacked by the returned fire), the frog is the companion of Turgenev’s Bazarov (and by extension, of Markevich’s post-Bazarovian nihilist character who is described as having grown so ominously in the intervening decade, that even his name is now menacingly huge: Mr. Leviathanov).

  3. John Emerson says:

    I’m reading Victor Serge’s memoirs now and it’s astonishing how literate and scholarly many of the Russian and other revolutionaries were.

  4. Which revolutionary was not literate and scholarly ? Bakunin, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Guevara, Nkrumah, or perhaps Robespierre ? The tenets of Marxism-Leninism almost imply that those who impel and lead successful revolutions are unlikely to come from the uneducated working classes, since these are not yet fully aware of what’s what.

  5. Unless you count Hitler and Idi Amin.

  6. I can’t believe it. Are you planning to read Boborykin as well?

  7. Yeah, I’ll probably give him a try at some point.

  8. With Markevich, you may as well start from Типы прошлого (The Characters of the Past) which spans a bit earlier into Russia’s past, into the 1840s and 1850s, from the before-the-railroads bliss and to the Crimean War. Lots of English there, sometimes quite unskillfully cobbled together, usually translated into Russian right away even without footnoting (in marked contrast with never-translated German and French phrases). City scenes, military camp scenes, and village scenes, it’s livelier than the all-in-one-estate setup of Marina’s Aly Rog. And the acrid propaganda warfare only intrudes towards the end, when it turns out that a talented violinist Kirillin, who lost his father to Napoleonic Wars and who was raised by his father’s noble and filthy rich commanding officer (with the estate’s name meaning, literally, Heaven), ends up poisoned by the liberal contagion through his education. Kirillin, of course, resents his father figure and ruinously rebels against him. In the end this Heaven turns Hell when Kirillin takes virginity of his benefactor’s daughter Nadya. Pretty much everybody involved then dies in sorrow, except for beautiful Nadya’s third cousin and true love who soldiers on, a spiritual cripple haunted by the imaginary sounds of Kirillin’s violin. Grrr. The first half of the book is a lot brighter, though. It’s almost as if the author sketched the outlines of a villain without knowing how to flesh them out later, then left the unfinished manuscript in his table, and finally returned and hastily added a more cartoonish ending to a story which just wouldn’t come to an end. To avoid the need for all those complicated Markevichian flourishes, the final part is written in an epistolary form, BTW.

    The flourishes and the realistic sketches are interesting; the one extinct word which picked my attention was алгвазил “cop” <= Sp.alguacil. These sorts of novels must feel like those proverbial piles of dung where the rooster digs in to find a pearl…

  9. Thanks, I’ll give it a try — though it sounds like I may not finish it! Did you mean to have a link for Типы прошлого?

  10. John Emerson says:

    Stu: most of these people were not Leninists, not all were Marxists, and most of the people Serge refers to were not leaders.

    Lenin wasn’t one of the astonishingly literate and scholarly ones. His critique of Mach was pretty poor. Stalin was mostly faking it too.

  11. Oops, sorry, Hat. Same site where you linked to “Marina”, they have all the works.

  12. John: Lenin wasn’t one of the astonishingly literate and scholarly ones. His critique of Mach was pretty poor.

    I think it’s fair to say that a particular evaluation of one of Lenin’s works – your assessment that his critique of Mach’s philosophy as “materialistic” was pretty poor – does not contribute much towards establishing how literate or scholarly he could be said to have been. Or Mach either, although it may seem that materialist and literate are incompatible properties.

    Lenin was certainly taken seriously by other philosophers, especially in the late 1920s, and not in connection with political philosophy. For example, his epistemology is discussed by several of the authors in my two-volume Suhrkamp collection on the German “sociology of knowledge debate” (Streit um die Wissenssoziologie) in 1928-29. This was a big surprise to me, who thought that Lenin was only a boring old Commie with a big stick.

    In any case, literate and scholarly is a vague classification. I don’t know what “revolutionaries” Serge talks about. My point in mentioning Marxism-Leninism was not to claim that the revolutionaries I listed adhered to it, or knew anything about it (Robespierre didn’t). I only wanted to say that Marxism-Leninism officially endorsed the banal fact that those who, in history, have grabbed power or attempted to, and held onto it, were usually literate and sometimes even scholarly.

    M-L called its practitioners “the vanguard of the working class”, a sheepskin gladly worn by a lot of bourgeois intellectuals since it proverbially suggests that lupine, no-nonsense intentions lie beneath.

  13. Not “my collection” as if claiming I had edited it, but “my copy of the collection”.

  14. John Emerson says:

    Well, there were coteries which even took Stalin’s scholarship seriously, if you know what I mean. And Hoxha’s.

    Perhaps my point was: their scholarship was very wide ranging and covered a lot of unexpected, hard-to-politicize fields. Unlike Lenin’s, to my knowledge. I’ll always think of Lenin as a specialist in winning intraparty arguments, with all his scholarship subordinated to that.

  15. Yes, all three of them offered arguments that could not be refused.

  16. their scholarship was very wide ranging and covered a lot of unexpected, hard-to-politicize fields.

    Pretty much everybody holds political views, not just people who are involved full-time in politics, and they hold them in addition to views on other things that they take seriously. It’s not clear to me why it should be a surprise that certain revolutionaries have been seriously interested and involved in subjects that are “hard to politicize”.

    Are there any particular reasons to believe that people who practice activity A for much of their time have no time left over for activities B and C ? And that even when they do have time left over, their ideas on B and C will be found to be heavily influenced by their views on A ?

    Perhaps by “revolutionaries” you mean people who are fanatical about revolution and politics. Their fanaticism would color everything they do, to the extent that when they have interests in philosophy and art, say, these interests will be in “politicized” philosophy and art.

    It may be true, by definition even, that fanaticism expands to fill the cognitive space available for its realization. But not all revolutionaries were fanatics.

  17. And only some reactionaries are fanatics.

  18. It’s not clear to me why it should be a surprise that certain revolutionaries have been seriously interested and involved in subjects that are “hard to politicize”.

    Of course that’s not a surprise, any more than it’s a surprise when actors, say, are seriously interested and involved in poetry or rock stars are seriously interested and involved in painting. The question is why anybody else would be interested in their amateur accomplishments. I doubt you’ll find many modern professional philosophers who take Lenin seriously as a philosopher, or care much about what he had to say on the subject. (Apart, of course, from Communist philosophers, if there are still any True Believers left among the professoriate.)

  19. John Emerson says:

    ” It’s not clear to me why it should be a surprise that certain revolutionaries have been seriously interested and involved in subjects that are “hard to politicize”. ”

    The contrast is with Lenin, who was single-minded to a fault, and to a lot of the others. These revolutionaries were not just people who had a political opinion, they were assassins etc., dedicated to revolution who sacrificed their lives and the lives of their families and even the lives of their inlaws.

    They were at a disadvantage when their competition within the party started to come from people like Stalin and nameless others for whom thuggery was natural. Serge pretty much says this. Even Trotsky immediately after his break seems to have had an unreasonable, unrealistic hope that people on the other side would listen to him, as though it were a debate about ideas.

    You do like to argue, as do I. In my experience, the arguments “I fail to understand” or “it’s not clear to me” tend to lose their force when they’re overused.

  20. We all like to argue around here.

  21. I don’t argue, I merely explain what is the case or what I think.

  22. In my experience, the arguments “I fail to understand” or “it’s not clear to me” tend to lose their force when they’re overused.

    Those aren’t arguments. They’re polite, frozen smiles such as horrified Japanese people in movies put on when confronted with something that standard protocol does not cover.

  23. At least by faux-politely probing I found out that what I had guessed was true. Would it be right to put it this way: you did not expect that fanatics / assassins might also be literate and scholarly ?

    This is related to the astonishment that many people profess at the supposed ability of mafia bosses to love their families dearly and yet murder people (including family members should they screw up) – as shown in the Godfather movies, at any rate. It is also related to the often-professed inability of people to understand “how the Holocaust could have happened” in the nation of Dichter und Denker.

    Well, when you experience or hear of something that doesn’t meet your expectations, then either you cling to those expectations as nevertheless desirable and promising, or discard them as unrealistic. Luhmann calls these the normative (resistant to learning, lernresistent) and cognitive (willing to learn, lernbereit) modes of response.

    What one can learn from goings-on in the Third Reich (to name but one) is that humanistic literature, great music etc etc provide no guarantees that individual and collective behavior will be any better than it should be.

  24. I’m pretty sure all of us in these parts are well aware of that.

  25. All of us in these parts may well be aware of specific lessons to be learned from Nazi Germany. Yet there appears to be less awareness of general mechanisms by which we can learn lessons (or not) from the way we learn lessons (or don’t). That’s the import of the cognitive/normative distinction.

    In the present case: I myself don’t see anything remarkable in the idea of a learned, scholarly fanatic. It seems that John does, or at least did for a while – even though there is not much to choose between a scholarly fanatic revolutionary and a scholarly fanatic Nazi (of which there were plenty).

  26. I suppose the point is that there’s no contradiction between scholarship and a dull mind, the kind of moral blindness that’s so obvious when an Eichmann has it, but that passes for revolutionary or reactionary fervor in the hands of an intellectual. Chomsky has said that he would have had the same politics if he had become an algebraic topologist, to which I would add: or if he had become an auto mechanic or a steelworker.

  27. Exactly. There’s no reason anyone should pay attention to “a learned, scholarly fanatic” just because of the learning. Many are learned; few know what to do with their learning. And it’s easy to be overly impressed with a Lenin (say) because he’d scraped together a few groats’ worth of learning in a provincial school before dedicating himself to world revolution.

  28. A mechanic or steelworker with Chomsky’s political fervor might find himself out of a job. That’s because extreme views don’t all by themselves pass as revolutionary or reactionary fervor. They pass only when those who know of them let them pass. All successes, including those of Lenin and Eichmann, are successes of complicity. One man doesn’t amount to much.

  29. John Emerson says:

    You really didn’t find anything out about me. You just poked until I said something that allowed you to preach your sermon, which if I’m not mistaken I have heard before a few times.

    I am now astonished to find that a rather bland statement of mine could provoke such a storm. I had tended to think of committed revolutionaries as dedicated, singleminded, and rather boring, like Lenin and quite a few of the other, with the cultured ones rather peripheral. But that wasn’t the case. I apologize for discovering for myself something that you are so proud of having already known.

  30. John, I don’t feel that I have “found out anything about you” – that might have been edifying and instructive, but one can’t have everything. I merely found a way to understand what you wrote – in my terms, natch – about learnedness and revolutionaries. Now summarizing my attempts to understand, I would say that I had taken “revolutionary” in a more neutral sense than you had meant it.

  31. And if this was a storm, it hardly rippled the surface of my Earl Grey.

  32. Ugh, a bit closer to the topic. Just picked in my feed. Analysis of a famous genre painting, how it was perceived when unveiled 1849 and how it is understood now – comic yielding to tragic. Supposedly in the pre-Ostrovsky / pre-Gogol era it was considered a good taste to laugh at the social habits and traditions of the merchant class; but gradually, it ceased to be funny, and people became mortified by the oppressive mores of the merchant life instead,

  33. Wow, thanks very much for that — I’ve seen the painting before, but the annotation is great!

  34. I love GT’s translation of парадного сговора as ceremonial collusion. The things you can miss by being able to understand Russian! Still, it must be at least somewhat difficult for a (modern?) Russian audience, since it is immediately explained.

  35. Yeah, “betrothal” is an obsolete sense of сговор.

  36. It’s too bad there’s no significance ascribed to the family for owning the cat, in the foreground. Surely it wouldn’t be there if there weren’t any?

  37. I didn’t know it but Pavel Fedotov, the artist of “Major’s Matchmaking”, left a very detailed description of the Major’s story in verse (can’t paste a link but you can get there from Russian wiki page). The poem has been quickly forbidden by the Imperial censorship, but spread around like wildfire in handwritten copies. 3 or 4 hundred lines of caustic observations about military service (Fedotov himself was an army lieutenant before the Emperor offered him a stipend if he leaves the service to paint), and it finally comes to a moment where the Major gives up on ever advancing to the rank of Colonel, and sets his sights on the daughter of Mr. Kulkov, a lumber supplier of Old Believer extraction. He ignores unflattering rumors spread by 2nd Lieutenant Kurozvonov from a rival battalion that supposedly Ms. Kulkov once had a crush on the young guy, yet turned out to be ugly, fat, and stupid ( but perhaps the real issue was about Kurzvonov’s dire financial straights and disciplinary problems, which have become known to her daddy). So Major carefully instructs his servant what to say to Polikarpovna the match-maker to obfuscate the Major’s own poor finances and lack of career prospects, and at this high point, the nearly 1000-liner poem ends – it’s now time to see what happens next in the painting.
    (Fedotov also wrote fables, predictably rallying against the overreach of the censors, [but I can't paste any site links to there])

  38. Fascinating, thanks for digging that up!

  39. Have you found it, LH? stroki dot net/content/view/13141/70 ? I was, like, that your kind of material, with a snapshot of the society and its language captured in real time in 1848 … but your new blog platform just ignores posts with this address, in a link or in the text, without a word of explanation…

  40. Dmitry: You can post comments with one link and see them immediately. If there is more than one link necessary, go ahead and post anyway, and Hat will make the comment visible as soon as he has a chance — usually just a few minutes during his daytime.

  41. John, no, I got a *different* problem this time – a real one, as opposed to just waiting a little when a comment has multiple links. I now think that the comment engine of this site blocks certain URL keywords (such as stroki dot net where Fedotov’s collection of poems is posted) but it doesn’t tell you what was wrong with the comment. You hit “post comment” button and it just returns you to the top of the page, voila. Gone to the black hole. I was trying to post the msg about Fedotov’s verses since yesterday … removed the hyperlink tags, split the text it halves to see if there are other offending keywords, nothing helped.

  42. Weird. I apologize on behalf of my incomprehensible and capricious software.

  43. Well, that’s weird. I posted it with no problem. I guess the software likes me.

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